Responsive email design – who is spoiling the show?

4th February 2013

In the last couple of months (in some cases as recent as a few weeks ago), popular web mail providers such as Gmail, Yahoo and – soon to be expected – Microsoft’s Hotmail replacement Outlook – have released their own free mobile apps to make it even easier for their account holders to access emails on smart phones. The USP of these apps is a ridiculously easy setup, no fee and a direct tie in to their desktop parent and custom folders or labels. A very convenient method to use email on mobile.

Mobile Email Apps

So far webmail providers have simply adopted existing desktop rendering methods for their apps. This means that more often than not so called media queries, which are bits of code telling the appending html what screen (view port) size is used, are being ignored. As a result, instead of displaying a potentially responsive email and giving the user the best possible experience when reading html emails by presenting the content in a screen-optimised, view port friendly way, the screen is treated as if it was a miniature desktop monitor. The content is reduced proportionally to fit the screen and forcing the user to manually zoom in to read the message.

This is the key difference between independent email apps and the smart phones’ native email application, which is built in by default. The native app displays content as is and supports media queries, allowing for fluid and even responsive email layouts.

To make matters worse, an email which is built in a true responsive way by utilising the benefits of media queries, should be built to show alternative content to mobile users, i.e. size optimised images, or shorter copy. Currently however the available webmail apps are unable to determine the screen they are viewed on and will attempt to display all coded content. This can lead to awkward rendering and even breaking html, and even shows inconsistent results between platforms such as iOS, Android and Windows.

Resposnive emails in mobile apps

There we have it, the status quo. It is highly likely that webmail providers will improve the features of their apps in the near future to cater for responsive email design and give their users a much better experience. Until that point though and because of the growing popularity of these free email apps, we recommend to revert to non-responsive but accurately rendering email campaigns to ensure universally clean display in all apps and devices.

Our strategy at nadworks

Contrary to the advise by such large international marketing and bulk email platforms such as Campaign Monitor or Mail Chimp, and html email rendering and delivery experts Email on Acid and Litmus, we have decided to pause our activity on responsive layouting for emails until compatibility has been achieved.

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